Merlin was dead. The nightmare had begun for the Cymri—every Briton, Welshman, Scot, and Pict—be they Christian or still cling¬ing to the old ways.
Kella O’Toole bent over her desk in the queen’s scriptorium, well aware that her countrymen’s freedom to worship a god of choice in his or her manner was at stake, not to mention that the threat of civil war loomed. This small room adjoining Gwenhyfar’s personal quar¬ters was the only place the official palace scribes and priests would not know what Kella was about.
Her heart beat with each scratch of her quill as she hurried to finish the last page of the copy of one of the most precious books in all Albion. She’d hoped to work with the original Hebrew scripts, those recorded by the hand of Joseph of Arimathea or
one of Christ’s apostolic family, to practice her translation of the language. But Merlin Emrys and Queen Gwenhyfar had hidden them away.
Kella’s pen smoothly glided over the artificially aged vellum: Arthur, Prince of Dalraida. Only untold hours of practice as the queen’s scribe and translator kept her hand from shaking. This copy had to be flawless. Kella had been working on it for the last year under Merlin Emrys’s orders. She’d known he’d been ill, yet the news of his death that morning had still come as a shock. It didn’t seem real that the man of so many faces—abbot, adviser to the king, teacher, astrologer, and man of science—had gone to the Other Side.
Only a week ago, he’d retired to his cave with none but his devoted abbess Ninian to take his final confession and give him his last rites. Now that Merlin Emrys’s last breath had expired, Ninian prepared his body to be sealed in the farthest reach of his cave for a year. Once the flesh fell away, leaving clean bones, the Grail priestess would return to transport them to Bardsley Island to rest in one of its holy caves with the bones of Albion’s greatest holy men and kings. Gwenhyfar would transport Arthur’s similarly one day.
A wave of nausea swept through Kella’s stomach. Her pen froze. Please, Lord, no. Not now. She put the quill down and relied more on a sip of now-cold tea laced with mint and elderberry than prayer for relief. God was so distant, she often wondered if He was real. Not that she’d ever mention her doubts aloud. She took another drink of the tea and flexed her stiff fingers.
In the opposite wall a peat fire in the hearth offset the damp chill of early Leafbud in the chamber. This was no time for illness, nor anything else to distract her from her duties. The heritage of Albion’s faith rested on her being able to finish this before Archbishop Cassian took total control of the church and its documents. The Davidic lineage passed on through the Milesian Irish royal families was well documented and kept in Erin, but Kella’s project protected the foundation of the British church laid by Jesus’s family and follow¬ers. Tradition had it that they’d come to Britain in the first century after the Sadducees set them adrift on an unforgiving sea, in a boat with no supplies, oars, or sails. Yet God waived the death sentence so that Joseph of Arimathea, his niece Mary—the mother of Jesus— and their company made it to the safety of Iberia, Gaul, and on to the Northern Isles, from there to spread the gospel throughout the Western world.
And here Kella was, a humble warrior’s daughter with no such holy or royal connection—at least not within the relevant last nine generations of her family—taking part in such a vital task. Kella would write for the queen until her fingers fell off.
Father, help me, Kella prayed, taking another swallow. Even if I am unworthy, fallen in Your eyes, I’m trying to help Your cause.
Nothing. Kella felt no relief from the threat of her stomach— only more frightened and alone than ever. Maybe she was the only one God didn’t listen to.
Father, I know I have sinned and am unworthy, but I beg You, help me.
Kella started from her introspection as Queen Gwenhyfar, garbed in hunter-green robes with embroidered trim, entered the rooms. A band of beautifully worked gold crowned her long, braided raven hair. Her sleek, dark beauty was a contrast to Kella’s untamable honey-kissed curls, pale complexion, and robust build. While it pleased Kella to hear her father say how like her fair-haired mother she’d become since she’d matured to womanhood, how she longed to be one of those light, willowy girls instead of small but well-rounded.
“I’m nearly done, milady. Only Arthur’s late sons to add.” She paused. “And King Modred.”
Wryness twisted the skillfully painted heart-line of Gwenhyfar’s lips. “Leave room for Urien of Rheged.” At the surprised arch of Kella’s brow, the queen added, “Cassian may yet have his way.”
“Aye, milady.” The Roman archbishop just might, but Kella didn’t have to like it. The stern, richly robed priest had joined Arthur in Rome on the High King’s return from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Nothing had been the same since. Cassian’s presence damp¬ened the gaiety of the court, as if it were a sin to enjoy life. As for Arthur—
“Rome has found a new way to conquer,” Gwenhyfar told Kella. “Christ didn’t come to dictate, but Cassian has.”
Rumor was that he’d even convinced the High King to renounce his cousin Modred as his successor in favor of Urien of Rheged. Considering that Arthur’s queen and the territory he fought most to protect were Pictish, choosing a Briton would not be a wise move.
“Be sure Modred’s name is written in first,” Gwenhyfar warned her. “We want Cassian, should he get his hands on this, to believe he has the original. ’Twould be as good as he would want to destroy any record of the British church having been established with equal authority to Rome’s.”
“Why is the king so blind to this man’s purpose?” Kella asked. Nausea rolled over her again. She fought the urge to put her hand on her stomach, instead embracing the tea with both hands.